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Barefoot v. Jennings overturned in key Trust Litigation Decision

On Behalf of | Jan 24, 2020 | Trust & Estate Litigation

Buffington Law Firm’s Trust Litigation attorneys have been keenly following the key trust litigation case of Barefoot v. Jennings.  This case, when originally decided by the Court of Appeal, had a far-reaching and downright disruptive effect upon trust litigation in California.  The reason is simple.  The decision in Barefoot held that if a plaintiff was challenging a trust, where there was an amendment that disinherited the plaintiff, that this meant that the plaintiff lacked standing to challenge the very amendment that disinherited him or her.  This gave rise to an obvious circular dillemma — if a defendant procured, by improper means such as  undue influence or the like, an amendment that disinherited another beneficiary, not only was that beneficiary disinherited, but the amendment caused the beneficiary to lose standing to challenge the amendment in probate court under Probate Code Section 17200!  This was a surprising decision, to say the least, since many trust litigation cases involve this precise scenario.

Trust litigation attorneys, including Buffington Law Firm’s trust litigation team, quickly devised a workaround — we were able to bring most or all of these cases as civil cases under the civil cause of action of “wrongful interference with expected inheritance.”  This workaround was fine, but it did deprive a lot of plaintiffs of the right to bring their case before the actual probate department, which is often more experienced regarding the nuances of trust litigation disputes.  Indeed, it is not too far off the mark to say that this experience is why courts have probate departments.

Our fine civil court judges “ran with the ball” while Barefoot was good law and numerous “intentional interference with expected inheritance case” came before the civil departments which worked hard and handled them well.  However, as of January 23, 2020 the California Supreme Court has overturned Barefoot and things will return to the previous status quo, where disinherited trust beneficiaries can bring challenges to trust amendments in Probate Court under the key Probate Code section 17200.  

Buffington Law Firm believes that the California Supreme Court decision that overturns Barefoot is extremely well-reasoned.  Among other things, the Court points out that a stated goal of the Probate Code is to allow Probate Courts to decide virtually all trust disputes.  Barefoot cut decisively against this.  Further, the Court pointed out exactly what perhaps most trust litigation attorneys were saying: “[t]o hold other than we do today [to fail to overturn Barefoot] would be to insulate those persons who improperly manipulate a trust settlor to benefit themselves against a probate petition.”  

The Court also makes an excellent point that is probably mainly of interest to attorneys, which is that where a Plaintiff/petitioner pleads that a challenged amendment to a trust was brought about improperly, e.g. by undue influence or fraud, the Code of Civil Procedure is clear that the Court must accept this allegation as true until trial or summary judgment ultimately decides it.  Barefoot failed to apply this basic principle and thus can be seen to have been wrongly decided for that reason as well.

The California Supreme Court in Barefoot was a necessary and correct application of California law.

If you are involved in a trust dispute, Buffington Law Firm invites you to contact us for a free legal consultation.  All consultations are with an actual experienced trust litigation attorney, are completely protected by attorney-client privilege, and there is never any obligation.  Call us today!